There was the expected — Carrie Underwood reigns supreme; Florida Georgia Line set fire to things — but there were more unexpected moments at the CMT Music Awards this year than arguably ever before. Keith Urban plays a mean bass — who knew? Lady Antebellum have an EDM affinity? Rick Springfield plays for tips on the streets of downtown Nashville? Whether you loved or loathed Wednesday's show, it probably kept you on the edge of your seat, wondering what praiseworthy and cringeworthy moments were coming next. Here are the 13 moments from the 2015 CMT extravaganza that are still provoking smiles —and eye rolls — today.
Awards shows often play host to elaborate set pieces or outlandish costumes, straining to create one-of-a-kind performances — the better to live on as viral videos. While those can be fun, there is something to be said for a solid touring band playing a polished version of a catchy tune, which is exactly what Zac Brown Band did with their genial hit "Homegrown." From the band's tight harmonies to the song's easy swing to Brown's beaming grin as he asserted simple contentment, it felt like an oasis of quality in a desert of mediocrity.
Having David Spade revive "Joe Dirt" to debut Keith Urban's new single was a glorious idea — one that certainly got the strongest reaction from the CMT audience all night, even though his reappearance was anticipated. But Rick Springfield doggedly busking on Broadway? No one saw that coming, nor did anyone expect the mini-film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Tom Arnold to be laden with so many A-listers. "Oh, I love 'Jesse’s Girl,'" gushed a star-spangled Schwarzenegger from the driver's seat of his Guuber, Nashville's newest, most popular mode of transportation. Guubers jammed the streets of downtown, en route to the CMT Music Awards but in no particular hurry when Steven Tyler was behind the wheel gabbing (and harmonizing) with Alan Jackson. In another Guuber nearby, comedian JK Corden asked his passenger Justin Bieber, "Why are you at the CMT Music Awards?" Bieber's reply was simple enough: "I love Luke Bryan," he answered right before a keg wagon commandeered by Big & Rich rolled down Broadway.
Perhaps in light of growing criticism over the criminal gender gap in country music, CMT played up its support of women throughout Wednesday night's broadcast. The timing couldn't have been better for Maddie & Tae to take home a buckle for the painfully relevant, comically topical "Girl in a Country Song," which was nominated for Duo Video of the Year. Didn't happen. Instead, the duo lost out to bro country's Beavis and Butt-head, Florida Georgia Line, who won for their attempt at a credible county song, "Dirt." During the acceptance speech, FGL's Brian Kelley called "Dirt" the best country song they've ever heard. (Seriously?) We agree only when compared to the duo's "Sun Daze," whose video was also nominated in the same category — and lost to Florida Georgia Line.
By now, country fans are well aware that Keith Urban is ridiculously talented, but he surprised everyone at the CMT Awards by playing bass during the premiere of his new single, "John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16." The Aussie wasn't just thumbing root notes either — he was putting some serious funk into that four string, channeling Sting with intricate patterns and grooving effortlessly along the way. Performed inside of a color-changing box and featuring a tightly produced drum line, Urban's new song celebrated everyday pieces of American culture alongside its world-famous icons, and also showcased somewhat of a new musical direction for the superstar.
When you're wearing a donut costume and dancing in front of thousands of people, "real" is a relative term. One minute you're comfortably lounging on an air mattress from the Target College Dorm collection, and the next minute you and the mattress are being crowd-surfed across a sea of fans transporting you to a technicolor stage covered in oversized inflatable food. While this might not be what everyone's teenage years looked like, Jake Owen managed to bring his song "Real Life" to life onstage with one of the most refreshing performances at the CMT Awards. The choreographed routine featured a bubbly dance crew that may or may not have come straight from the Gap (or a Katy Perry show), prancing around the stage wielding blowup pizza slices and Homer Simpson sprinkle donuts while Owen exercised his right to country rap. The overall effect landed somewhere in between an episode of the Mickey Mouse Club and an Eighties MTV commercial, but it was undeniably fun.
Before catching the award for Male Video of the Year, Luke Bryan revved his proverbial engine, ready to calibrate the crowd with a performance of his new single, "Kick the Dust Up." Wearing what looked like a shoulder holster and an eventually turned-backwards cap, the singer came galloping onstage like Davy Crockett storming the Alamo, bouncing to and fro between the boing-boings of a jaw harp and the Indian flavorings of the song's post-chorus. Its strutting tempo and funky gait rode the coattails of "I Love Rock 'N Roll" and a Backstreet Boys club banger — a thrill for the sea of swooning teenage girls whose cheers encouraged Mr. "Play It Again" to sensually gyrate his hips while rapping a few lines in the song.
During a show that historically doubles down on huge productions, props and flash, Eric Church stood out with a strong performance that leaned heavily on the music, and not much else. His quiet delivery of "Like a Wrecking Ball" was in stark contrast to the rest of the night — raw, soulful and played on the arena floor, putting him on equal footing with the fans. There was no set to speak of, just a couple of musicians and a spotlight. Church played his own guitar parts, and although they weren't perfectly polished, they were real on a level that laid bare the ultimate goal of all country music — honesty.
The CMT Music Awards kicked off with what seemed like a safe bet — Lady Antebellum performing their rousing new single, "Long Stretch of Love." But before the song was over they ended up proving country awards shows will do almost anything to prevent themselves from being country. In a mash-up attempt that didn't quite mash, the trio tossed to Zedd for an interlude of his pulsating EDM hit, "Beautiful Now." Beside the fact that the vast majority of the audience had no clue who the German DJ was, the segue felt forced and the active ingredients at work behind the two songs — and, for that matter, genres — could not have been more opposite. It's just the latest shameless attempt to bridge the gap between country and the broader pop culture of the moment, but this was a bridge to nowhere.
In just one simple segment introducing Reba's commanding performance, Nashville co-stars Esten and Carmack exuded more warmth and playfulness than the awards' actual hosts, Dancing With the Stars' Erin Andrews and Pitch Perfect's Brittany Snow, whose opening comedy bit lacked spontaneity — and humor. Sure, Nashville's Deacon and Will have the luxury of sharing the screen together each week, but maybe that's the point: choosing hosts who have an inherent familiarity. Watching Carmack, who will soon release his own EP, rib Esten about his character possibly biting the big one in the show's season finale felt slightly off-script — and totally alive.
Newer artists relegated to playing the blink-and-you'll-miss-'em commercial bumpers are, in fact, usually missed. But in less than 60 seconds, both Janson's "Buy Me a Boat" and Ballard's "Sunshine & Whiskey" proved more buoyant and beaming than most of the songs by artists who were given full performance slots. Shrewdly, each singer-songwriter also managed to maximize their exposure and tell more of their stories by adding spice to their respective hits. Janson was all scarecrow charm and good cheer, pulling out his harmonica to show off skills the recorded version of the song doesn't even feature. Ballard followed suit, exuding Fifties greaser cool while revving up the brawn of his breezy hit with fiery guitar licks.
Way, way back in a time long ago (last November), Kenny Chesney opened the 2014 CMA Awards with "American Kids." He played the same damn song (actually, it's really good) at the CMT Music Awards, bucking the standard practice of using the show to plug a hot new single. The payoff: Chesney played the tune on a satellite stage outside the arena in downtown Nashville, surrounded by reveling fresh-faced fans who hollered along with the superstar and even drowned him out on call-and-response choruses. The outsized honky-tonk scene was clearly a transcendent moment for those who were there, as well as for a lot of people watching at home.
Coming off a resurgence that has surprised even the diva herself, Reba came out guns blazing on her defiant, no-tears-in-my-beers break-up jam "Going Out Like That," giving the early part of the show a welcome jolt of energy. She managed to be sassy yet age appropriate, and as usual, sang her red head off. The vibrancy of the performance had us immediately wishing the country queen wasn't confining her magical live powers to her upcoming Las Vegas residency with buddies Brooks and Dunn.
While viewers at home were watching Blake Shelton sell underwear during commercial breaks, fans inside the Bridgestone Arena were held captive by DJ Sinister, who spun seemingly anything but country. Sample mash-up: House of Pain's "Jump Around" and DJ Snake and Lil Jon's "Turn Down for What," played at Camp X-Ray decibels. It's true that many of today's country fans have broad tastes, but there appeared to be more blank stares in the arena seats than the intended dancing. (In fact, the only dancing going on during the breaks was by Nashville Predators cheerleaders.) Even an endless loop of Party Down South clips would have been more inspiring.